China's war with Vietnam 30 years ago is remembered as a bloody catalyst for the transformation of the People's Liberation Army into the modern fighting force it is today. The anniversary this week has also prompted comparisons between the remarkable development of both countries since then, and the conclusion that, for all its achievements, the mainland has something important to learn from the assertive 'little brother' it once sought to put in its place.
The PLA at the time faced the troubles of the Cultural Revolution and was unprepared for the war it started. Its reliance on the Maoist 'human wave' tactic of overwhelming numbers backfired against an enemy hardened by guerilla campaigns to evict French and American occupiers.
The invasion was linked to Chinese-Soviet regional rivalries and Beijing's concern about being encircled by Moscow's influence, heightened by Hanoi's leaning towards Moscow to counter historical dominance by its bigger neighbour. China withdrew after 17 days, claiming success, but nursing heavy losses. This spurred sweeping efforts to modernise the PLA.
Normalisation of ties 18 years ago has not prevented territorial disputes, particularly over oil and gas resources in the South China Sea. The signing of economic co-operation agreements to help resolve them reflects Hanoi's concern over Chinese dominance.
Vietnam has prospered from adopting economic reforms introduced by China. But as our three-part series this week observed, Vietnam can also teach China something about the way forward. What sets the two apart now is Vietnam's political reforms. They do not weaken the party's grip on governance, but they strengthen participatory democracy and accountability of officials within it, including extensive consultation of members about appointments to top party positions. Ultimately, such inclusiveness is important to achieving further social and economic reforms. The global financial crisis has overtaken reform on the political agenda. But Vietnam's progress in this regard remains an example to its big brother.